Will the Nationals Shut Down Stephen Starsburg? Should they?

It’s been one of the franchise’s biggest questions since before the season even began: Will the Washington Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg? If so, after how many innings? And even if the team is in the midst (or at the front) of a pennant race?

Since the preseason, it’s been floating around that the team would shut down their ace after 160 innings. Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery toward the end of the 2010 season before returning to throw just 24 Major League innings in September, 2011. Throughout the season, the Nationals have maintained the line that they would limit Strasburg’s innings regardless of their position in the standings. But now, with Strasburg having logged 127.1 innings and the Nats sitting at 67-43—the best record in the National League—the moment of truth has finally arrived.

Everyone and their mother has an opinion on the matter, but there’s really only a few whose voices really count: the team’s ownership, management (both on the field and behind the scenes), and the man himself. During an interview on last week on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson indicated that the team is likely to shut Strasburg down after 160 innings, stating that the team was not willing to risk the 24 year-old Cy Young candidate’s future for one playoff race. Last year, the Nats did shut down another great young pitcher, Jordan Zimmerman, after 161.1 innings, but as Johnson acknowledged on “PTI,” the team was in third place at the time. Johnson said that it’s “a little different this year. But you do what’s best for the player, not only for today, but for the long haul.”

General manager Mike Rizzo has claimed that their is no “magic number” for Strasburg, and that he and he alone would decide when the pitcher’s season would end. But in July, Strasburg, who’s 12-5 with a 2.97 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 160 strikeouts, told MLB Network Radio that if the team tells him he can’t pitch in the playoffs or World Series, “They’re going to have to rip the ball out of my hands.”

If the Nationals do decide to sit Strasburg down, the rationale is simple: they hope the All-Star righty still has a good many years of baseball in front of him (and preferably in a Nationals’ uniform). That said, it’s still a gutsy move to pull on a fanbase that has yet to see a winning season. Their best year to date since moving to the nation’s capital was their first, 2005, when they went .500 exactly, 81-81. Sure the Nats have the best record in the NL, but there’s a whole lot of season left, and at the moment they’re only four games in front of the Atlanta Braves. If, without Strasburg, the team fell into a wild card spot, well, they’d be putting themselves in a real uncomfortable position. As I discussed two weeks ago, playoff spots are no longer created equal. Even the wild card team that wins the one-game play in is put at a significant disadvantage as they have to put up their two, three, and four pitchers against their opponent’s one, two, and three. If Strasburg is already out of the picture, then they’re another spot back in the rotation when the “real” playoffs begin. And that’s all assuming they win that 163rd game. How quickly will Nats fans forgive Mike Rizzo if they lose the play in game with someone other than Strasburg on the mound? If they weren’t already second guessing his decision, which they are, imagine the fallout of playing just one extra game in what’s looking like it can be “their year.”

Perhaps protecting Strasburg’s arm for years to come is the right decision, it’s not going to change our culture of instant gratification. And while it’s easy to understand why the team would rather wait and see what their ace can bring them in years to come, there is an argument to be made for letting him off the leash. On Saturday, ESPN’s Beth Ann Clyde and Eli Marger laid down their case for letting Strasburg play.

First off, Clyde and Marger analyzed the stats of the 20 pitchers since 2001 who have fit a profile similar to Strasburg’s: they had to be 23 years of age or younger and in the midst of their first season throwing more than 150 innings. They found that there was no major statistical differences in those pitchers’ performances from the beginning of the season through the end of July and August through the season’s end. Secondly, they looked at two cases of young pitchers who underwent Tommy John surgery—A.J. Burnett and the aforementioned Zimmerman—and argued that they actually got better than time, not worse. Of course, the Nationals may be worried less about stats and more about Strasburg getting hurt.

The fact is we won’t ever know which is the right way to go. Strasburg is likely going to sit, and we won’t ever know what could have been.

Follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.



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What’s more Improbable: a No-hitter or no No-hitters?

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in New York Mets history on June 1. It took the Mets 51 seasons and 8,020 games to get their first no-no, so it’s been a long time coming. Believe me, prior to Friday a significant portion of Mets fans counted down from 27 until the opposing team got their first hit every single game. I know I did.

A no-hitter is a rarity. It’s an unbelievable attraction that can spark a team, lift a fan base, and give meaning to an entire season. Just listen for Ron Darling’s yelp when you watch Johan get the final strike. As far as I’m concerned, my team won the World Series on Friday. But when you’ve been playing as long as the Mets have is it more improbable that they finally got a no-hitter or that it took until now to get it?

Ironically enough, Baseball Prospectus published an article about the unlikelihood of the Mets not having a no-hitter just three days before Johan’s occurred. BP used a (relatively) simple equation to calculate the probability and ended up with this: “Between the birth of the Mets in 1962 and May 27th, 2012, there were 209,764 starts made by major-league pitchers, with 131 ending up as no-hitters. This gives us a p(no-hitter) of .000625.” Based on those odds as well as a more complicated model used by Rob Neyer and Bill James, the Mets should have thrown five no-hitters through their first 8,008 games. Should.

But looking past the raw numbers is when the real fun (or agony) begins. Major League Baseball officially recognizes 275 no-hitters between 1876 and 2012, including Johan’s. Over the same time period, a player has hit for the cycle 293 times, which makes the two feats near equally common. The Mets have never had a problem with the latter accomplishment. Ten players have hit for the cycle while wearing a Mets uniform, the most recent being Scott Hairston on April 27.

Furthermore, of the 275 no-hitters in history, 24 were thrown by pitchers who played for the Mets at some point in their careers. Most notable is Nolan Ryan, who threw seven no-hitters after leaving the team, but Dwight Gooden, Tom Seaver, David Cone, Mike Scott, and Phillip Humber each got one after their Mets career ended. Additionally, Al Leiter, Don Cardwell, Brett Saberhagen, Dock Ellis, Kenny Rogers, John Candelaria, Scott Erickson, and Dean Chance threw one, and Warren Spahn two no-hitters before coming to the Mets. Just to pile it on, Hideo Nomo threw two no-hitters as well, one before and one after playing for the Mets. Let’s just keep piling it on: A.J. Burnett, who was drafted by the Mets (although he never played for them), threw a no-no in 2001, while Alejandro Pena and Octavio Dotel combined with others for no-hitters in 1991 and 2003 respectively; which, of course, was after they’d left the Mets.

But wait, there’s more! Do you know who the Mets traded Nolan Ryan for? Of course not, because it’s Jim Fregosi, who had an astonishing five home runs and 32 RBI in 146 games over a season and a half with the team. Young Met superstars Gooden and Cone pitched their no-hitters for the cross-town rival Yankees. Perhaps most egregious of all, Tom Seaver, who pitched for the Mets for over a decade and was accurately nicknamed “The Franchise” (he remains the only player wearing a Mets hat on his Hall of Fame plaque), threw his no-hitter in 1978, his first full season on another team.

Don’t worry, I’m still not done. The Mets have collected 35 one-hitters over the years. Seaver had five of those, and three were no-hit bids that he lost in the ninth inning. Damn you Jimmy Qualls! The team’s most recent one-hitter came from R.A. Dickey on August 13, 2010. Whoever got the lone hit in that game? Why, starting pitcher Cole Hamels of course. Yes, you read that right. Starting pitcher Cole Hamels.

Just one more story. This whole drought/half-century of misery thing could have been avoided but for a Joe Amalfitano single in the Mets’ very first season. In June 1962, rookie pitcher Al Jackson gave up that single in the first inning of a double header before “settling down.” He  went the next nine innings without giving up a hit. The New York Times headline the following day: “A Single in First Spoils No-Hitter.”

There you have it, a much-abridged version of our tale of anguish. So please don’t roll your eyes every time you read that the Mets “finally got a no-hitter,” even when “finally” is in italics. And don’t you dare say the team (and its fans) didn’t earn or deserve it, even if Carlos Beltran’s ball did hit the line.

Is it time to panic in the Bronx?

New York Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain watches the ninth inning of MLB American League baseball action at Yankee Stadium against the Boston Red Sox in New York June 9, 2011. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Considering the Yankees are currently sitting six games above .500, the question in the title of this post seems rather silly. Until you take a closer look, that is.

After sweeping a hapless Oakland team and taking two of three from the Angels in L.A., the Bombers were just swept by the Red Sox, who outscored their hated rivals 25-13 in the process. Joe Girardi’s club has now lost seven in a row to Boston and is just 1-8 in the season series.

Adding insult to injury, it appears as though reliever Joba Chamberlain could need Tommy John reconstructive surgery after he was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his throwing elbow. The injury is a major blow to the club, as Chamberlain heads to the DL with a 2.83 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP. He had stabilized one of the biggest issues for the Bombers, who have struggled getting to Mariano Rivera in the ninth.

If Rafael Soriano (elbow) could ever get healthy and pull his head firmly out of his rear end, then the loss of Chamberlain could be slightly mitigated. But the $35 million offseason acquisition has been nothing shy of disastrous thus far in the Bronx, so relaying on Soriano at this point isn’t prudent.

Of course, the Yankees can pick their poison in terms of what their biggest weaknesses is right now: their bullpen or their starting rotation. For the most part, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have pitched beyond expectations. Teams with as much offensive firepower as the Yankees have will certainly take Garcia’s 3.86 ERA and Colon’s mark of 3.39.

But at some point, A.J. Burnett will have to step up. He’s 6-4 on the year but his ERA is north of 4.30 and worst of all, he remains inconsistent. One start the Yanks are getting seven innings out of him and the next he’s done in five. Assuming Colon and Garcia have at least one bad stretch coming up between them, the Bombers need a more consistent effort out of Burnett. (It would have also been nice if CC Sabathia could have stopped the bleeding with a win over Boston on Thursday night but alas, not even the big fella could save this club right now.)

The other more subtle issue that seems to be growing more problematic by the day is Girardi himself. His moves lately are baffling and just in terms of managing his pitching staff, it seems as if he either leaves his starters in too long or overuses his bullpen. It’s like there’s no middle ground with Girardi and you have to wonder when his players will start losing confidence in him – if they haven’t already, that is.

The good news for the Yankees is that the American League doesn’t look as strong as it has in recent years. The Red Sox are the class of the division and the league, but the Indians have figured out that they’re the Indians, the Tigers are inconsistent and the Rangers look a lot less scary than they did a year ago. It’s not inconceivable that an 88 or 89-win Yankees team could make the postseason as a Wild Card and hope to get hot at the right time. After all, they’re still third in runs scored, first in home runs and second in slugging percentage and OPS. In other words, their offense can certainly carry them all season.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a major dark cloud that is presently hovering over this club and it’ll be interesting to see what the front office has in store if things continue to get worse.

With Pettitte retiring, the Yankees’ rotation success rides on Burnett

Now that Andy Pettitte has decided to retire, the general consensuses is that the Yankees’ are screwed when it comes to their starting rotation. But that’s probably an overreaction.

erunner Nelson Cruz circles the bases behind him in the top of the sixth inning of game four of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York, USA, 19 October 2010. The winner of the best-of-seven series will go on to face either Philadelphia Phillies or the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. EPA/JUSTIN LANE fotoglif765596

Assuming he doesn’t get injured or suffer a case of bad luck, CC Sabathia is still the best pitcher in the American League. If he can stay healthy, Phil Hughes is a solid No. 3 on a championship team and even has the talent to be a good No. 2. Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre are the unknowns, but the Yankees don’t need any of those guys to be Cliff Lee or even Pettitte. They could do much worse for their No. 4 and No. 5 starters.

But with Pettitte retiring, the Bombers do need the 2009 version of A.J. Burnett to return and not the puss that took the mound in 2010. It’s not like the guy can’t pitch; he helped the Yankees win the World Series in ’09 by finishing with a 4.04 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP. But those numbers rose in 2010 when he went 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA and 1.51 WHIP.

The key with Burnett has always been his mindset. If he’s healthy and his head is in the right place, then the Yankees’ rotation will be fine with Sabathia, Burnett and Hughes rounding out the top 3 spots. But if Burnett’s confidence starts to go, then so does his stuff and the wheels can come off rather quickly.

Pitching in New York and the small dimensions at Yankee Stadium don’t help his cause either. Pitchers can’t get away with mistakes at Yankee Stadium like they can at Petco Park or AT&T. Leave one up to a lefty in the Bronx and the ball is likely to wind up in some fan’s office the next morning.

But the early reports on Burnett have been good. He’s working with pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who says Burnett has a new approach that should yield better results. He also thinks that Burnett’s “mind and heart are in the right place,” and that he wants to do well.

For the Yankees’ sake, hopefully Rothschild is right. Losing Pettitte to retirement could be a minor blip or a catastrophe depending on Burnett.

Are the Yankees finished?

Mark Teixeira (L), Robinson Cano, second left, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter (R) of the New York Yankees stand around as a new relief pitcher is brought in in the ninth inning during game three of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium on October 18, 2010 in New York.   UPI/Monika Graff Photo via Newscom

Things don’t look good in the Bronx.

A.J. Burnett retired the fist six batters he faced Tuesday night, but then remembered he was A.J. Burnett pitching in 2010 and the wheels started to fall off. The end result was disastrous, which is what most pundits figured when Joe Girardi appointed him his Game 4 starter.

Burnett allowed five runs on six hits in six innings of work as the Rangers crushed the Yankees 10-3 in Game 4 of the ALCS. Texas’ catcher Bengie Molina (a great midseason pickup from the Giants) went 3-for-4 with a go-ahead three run homer in the sixth off Burnett, while the eventual ALCS MVP Josh Hamilton also hit a pair of dingers and Nelson Cruz added a two-run shot in the ninth.

Compounding issues for the Yankees is that Mark Teixeira is now done for the season with a strain in his right hamstring. Twenty-three-year-old Eduardo Nunez hit .280 this year in 50 at bats with one home run, but he’s not going to keep pitchers awake at night like Teixeira will.

The Bombers face elimination this afternoon at 4:00PM ET. The good news is that they have their ace on the hill; the bad news is that CC Sabathia has a 7.20 ERA in this year’s postseason. C.J. Wilson will start for the Rangers and his ERA is a tad better (2.03), plus he flustered New York hitters for most of Game 1 before they got to him in the 7th inning. And even if the Rangers lose today, they’ll be at home for the final two games of the series and Cliff Lee (who’s pretty good in the postseason) would start Game 7 if necessary.

The Red Sox have proved this decade that being down 3-1 doesn’t mean a club can’t pull off a comeback. But the Yankees look old, tired and dare I say completely overmatched in this series. They look finished.

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